Returning Home From Nepal

August 5, 2011

Doha, Qatar

Brendan in the Doha Airport, Qatar

We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone.  We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight.   It’s a nice airport, extremely clean.  We’ve gotten used to grime.  There are trash cans!  I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms.  Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.

What else is different.  People are diverse.  There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners.  Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect.  Not too many women walking around in abayahs.   I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls.  We only had one day together in our identical clothes.

Anura’s mark on my palm

Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna.  It is my most precious ornament.  Like all things, it will not last.  It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands.  Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone?  No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast.  A new volunteer will come, I am sure.  This does not console me.

Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport.  He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him.  He would have been fine without me, I think.  I have no way of knowing that.  No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face.  You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.

Same day, about 24 hours later:

New York, New York

Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan.  When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad).  Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.

I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted.  I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours.   Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me.  He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.

He just opened his eyes and laughed.  A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English.  I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…”  Welcome to America!

I have spoken to T now twice.  I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival.  We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones.  It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual.  Still, it felt strange.

He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests.  It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival.  I asked him how he accomplished this.  He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful.  I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.

Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month.  So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight.  This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now.  I’m worried that it will feel very cold and empty without him there.

Brendan said, “Don’t worry!  Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”

It is true.  With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof.  Plenty of company.   Thank goodness for Brendan.

I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now.  My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say.  But it is certain that I have changed.  I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.

One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country.  Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white.  Some of them will be black.  Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!

I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks.  I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.

I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.

I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala.  It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning.  It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.

Equinox

The equinox is the period when the day and night seem be the same length.  For just a moment, the earth tilts neither away from nor towards the sun.  This is a time of transition, of passage from one state to another. Many cultures celebrate major holidays during the spring and fall equinox.

Rituals are useful because they help to make us conscious of our place in time and space on the planet.  They help us to mark and process change,  which happens so quickly sometimes that we don’t notice it.

Today, for example, I took the dogs through Hartwood acres, as I did just three days ago, and even though we were walking the same paths, the world seemed to have changed.

Last Sunday the forest and fields were fully and radiantly in bloom.  White snakeroot blossomed in patches of sunlight under the trees, and last year’s leaves were slowly disintegrating into a ruffled, brown carpet.  The woods were still vibrant, green and pulsating with summer. That day we walked in dappled, open forest for an hour or so, when the dogs caught the scent of some deer and began to strain against the leash.  Instead of reining them in, I raced up the hills with them, just as eagerly, with spontaneous, unrecognizable power, and then came to a sudden, blissful stop.

The deer, fleeing, had led us, panting, out into the most glorious goldenrod meadow that rolled and undulated before us.  It was wildly yellow, interspersed with purple aster, thick and heavily fragrant.  It buzzed loudly with bees gathering pollen on both sides of the path.  Bits of straw and ochre petals stuck to my clothes and the dogs’ fur as we pushed through.  Monarch butterflies scattered.  Across the golden ocean a thousand squadrons of dragonflies were zooming, diving and whirling, just like the hawks and the buzzards circling above us.  All of nature was intensely, enthusiastically, wildly alive.

Just three days later, the first red and yellow leaves were falling to the forest floor. The canopy was still verdant, still filled with yellow-green light, but it was as though the trees had sighed all together and shaken their hair out for the last time.  They  were now sending their energy to their roots, not to their branches and tendrils.  There seemed to be fewer grasshoppers.  Flotsam floated carelessly down to the path, which was muddier than it had been, messier, muckier, denser.  A moth fluttered into my face and brushed soft cobweb wings against my cheek.

I came out into the clearing expectantly, looking for that golden, wild fertility of a few days before.  The fields were still yellow, but not as brilliant, even though the sun shone as brightly as it had before. Bright plumes ostentatiously waved at the sky, but many of the flower heads had begun to brown and nod in the breeze.  The bees were still gathering, buzzing and burrowing into the petals, and the dragonflies whizzed, as before. Yet the season of decaying, decomposing, withering, wilting, leaning, and breaking down had begun in earnest.

It had happened just like that, in a matter of days. Plants and trees loosened and flung their seeds into the air; squirrels, chipmunks, and groundhogs stuffed themselves with nuts and shoots; and everywhere everything was sliding into rot or sleep.  Yet the very moment with which all of nature prepared itself for death was also the moment of new life in motion, copulation, fertilization, and regeneration.

My mother died during this season.  She was 55.  My father suffered a nearly fatal stroke just a few years later, and fell into a dark depression for 15 more years.  I am thinking about my friend Philip, who is my age. He makes a living as a sculptor.  Just a few days after Hurricane Irene filled his studio with mud, Philip suffered two strokes that left him paralyzed.  The prognosis for him is hopeful, as it is for my friend and sister MJ, who has recovered from Stage 4 ovarian cancer.  None of us knows how long we will enjoy what we have right now, this minute, in our lives.

Treasure your health, your ability to walk, to see, to sing.  What you have now is greater and more valuable than you probably know.

The Place that Grants all Wishes

I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:

Here is the Buddha himself magnificently before me, strong, rounded, ample, powerful.  They say that this place, more than any other place in all the world, is where wishes are heard and answered.

What are my wishes:

1.  I wish to heal.  Heal the mother in me who feels wounded.

2. I wish for true companionship.

3. I wish that my son will find his way, his strength, his chai, his chi, his life-force, and know his inner beauty.

The first wish is nearly granted.  I am a good mother if hardly conventional.  I have done my best.  This wish is the one I came to Nepal to plead.  It requires a sacrifice.  I would like to stay here to explore further sides of myself in the world, accomplish something that feels like an accomplishment.  But it is time to return.  The journey must be completed for the wish to come true. This is what the spirit of the place, Boudha, tells me.  It called to me and I came.  There was much to learn.  Have I learned what I came here to learn? Here is what I found out:

That I love my son.

That I have a great desire to take care of him and to be with him.

That, although he can care for himself, I want very much, very much, to spend more time with him.

He has confessed that I drive him crazy, that he doesn’t always like me!  This makes me laugh.  Bravo! I am shouting.  Hooray for you to be able to tell your mother this!

I like Boudha.  I could spend a long time here.  It is a good place.  I like the people circumambulating the stupa, an anarchic procession they call chora or kora.  I liked riding my bicycle here.

I have been watching a man doing his puja, his prostrations, for over an hour.  He is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and he is bald.  He has wrapped his prayer beads around his wrists.  He stands, raises his beads with both hands to the top of his head, then to his third eye, and then to his chest.  He kneels, hands sliding up the wooden prayer board, lays himself out and pushes himself back up, swings his hands above his head, touches his third eye, his chest, and down to the board.  His hands slide up to support his body in plank, and then brace to push him back up again.  He has repeated this movement twenty or thirty times while I have been describing it.  He looks older, maybe 60. A woman in a pink kurta sits indolently on the board next to him, where a dog is sleeping in the shade.

I am looking up at the Buddha’s stern, blue eyes and this is what they say to me:

“The connection was never lost, never broken, only tested.”

“But,” I complain, “there were gaps, missing slats on the bridge between us!”

The Buddha says,

“It is whole.  All is well.  The bond, the bridge, is sturdy.  Trust it across wide distances and deep canyons.  You will never break it.”

The sky is so beautiful tonight.  Bright clouds are puffing out behind the dark mountain and the golden roofs of the gompas.  Bells are ringing, dogs are barking, and the tourist stores are broadcasting “om mane peme hum.”  Prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. My heart is full of love.

Before Leaving for Pokhara

7 July 2011

I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola.  The Nepalis blame the rain.  I blame the pollution, but who cares?  I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged.  Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me.  I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses.   I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted.  What I needed was a a good, solid rest.

I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes.  What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself.  It struck me that I was wasting time.  There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost.  I am riding that wave.  But I can’t let it overwhelm me.   I am so incredibly lucky, after all.  Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria,  I am also here with my son, my only child.  I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him.  I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult.  We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels.  We will only be here for another four weeks.  Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.

I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs.  He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town.  Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys.  We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead.   We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived.  My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view.   I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.

We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning.  The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses.  No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet.  Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places.  I am not looking forward to it.  But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends.  It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days.   We all need the break.

Canada Day

July 1, 2011

Anura, Bipin, Gorima, Nirmala and Krishala sang Happy Birthday to me.  I had brought everyone presents—blue and white ribbons for the big girls, who have long hair, purple barrets for the younger two, and a ping-pong paddle set for Bipin.  We walked to school the way we always do.  We pass the pile of bricks growing steadily smaller next to the house being built, cross the busy intersection, and then go down the road to school, where there live two roosters, an uncertain number of hens and chicks, and a homeless red puppy with a wound on his neck.  I want to rescue the puppy every day.

Shova was upset that no one had come to breakfast today.  She had, after all, gotten up early to cook it.  Even though I had already eaten at the orphanage, I sat down and ate to please her.  I had 3 helpings because it was sooo good: large flat white beans and potatoes in a curry of onion, garlic, ginger, and masala.  I want to cook with her and take lots of notes.

Brendan is still sick and I am worrying about him.  I love fussing over him and mock-threatening to punish him if he doesn’t drink up all his water and take his medicine.

I love love love love love love having him here with me.

I am very happy today.

……

Just back from teaching. Very touched. Darina has been coaching the women to sing happy birthday to me all week long.  They serenaded me right after the Nepali anthem.  Total surprise!  They also brought me flowers and a lovely (well, hideous) plaque that says “Sweet Love/ Best Wishes”.

Krishala, again

28 June 2011 Eve

Just back from the orphanage.  Maria, who is starting her fifth year of medical school, went with me to check up on Krishala, who was ill again today.  The report on Krishala’s stool sample came back and informed us that she has ameobic dysentery, which is extremely common among children in Nepal.  The headaches are harder to explain.  She probably needs to see an eye doctor, but Gehlu wants to clear up her other problems—viral tonsilitus and now dysentery—first.  So the doctor gave her some paracetamol, which Americans call acetaminophen.   Maria and I went over to find out if Krishala was getting the proper dosage of the medicine she needs, and also to see how she was doing.

We arrived at a completely darkened house.  The children were eating dinner at candle- and flash-light.  Maria, who I have come to like very much, is as drawn to the children as I am.  Indeed, everyone who has met them falls in love with them, because they are all extremely affectionate and cheerful.  But Nirmala, the youngest, is the most endearing of all.  She smiles all the time, and her eyebrows jump up as her eyes ignite when she looks over at you. I call her my little laughing Buddha.  “Eh-bhui!” she erupts, bobbing up on her toes or, if she is sitting, onto her haunches, whenever something piques her interest or enthusiasm.  Or she starts and points and says “U!” when she sees something she likes.  She likes to look at photographs of herself and her new family.  She loves to be held.  Maria loves to hold her.

Maria also determined that while Krishala is getting the medicine she needs, she has only been given half the amount that she should take to get well.  So she and I will go to the pharmacy tomorrow to restock.  We don’t know why there is not enough medicine for her.  We assume that Gehlu, who picked it up, did not understand that she needed more.  We will remedy the situation, but worry about what would have happened to Krishala if we had not been here.  We worry about what will happen to all the children when we leave, as we must.

This morning I held Krishala on my lap, because she was sick.  So naturally all the children wanted to sit on my lap, and I spent the morning under a heap of loving little bodies.  Surely it is impossible to feel unloved and unneeded here.

Today I learned something that made me very sad.  Each of the children have suffered from neglect, poverty, cruelty, and forced labor.  But Krishala’s body shows the blows that fate has dealt her more than the others.  Today I found out that she is 10, not 8, as I had believed.  She is much smaller than the other ten year-old, Anura, and smaller even that Gorima, who is indeed 8, or thereabouts.

Gorima (8), Krishala (10), and Anura (10)

Why is Krishala so small?  Because she has been malnourished.  Remember, Krishala is the one who came to the orphanage cleaning up after and serving everyone, because she had been an enslaved servant for most of her life.  Her father was a drunkard who squandered the family property and sold all of their land to support his carousing.  He desperately wanted a son.  When his wife gave birth to the tenth daughter in row, he abandoned the family, and the girls were sent or sold out to work.  She is ten years old.   She looks six.  She is woefully behind for her grade in English, in math, and in science.  She is intelligent, very intelligent, but she has spent nearly no time in school.  Rupus, the six-year-old, appears to speak better English than she does.  But she comprehends a lot.

Sometimes I rock Krishala in my arms and sing lullabies to her.  She goes quite still and closes her eyes, drifting back into a baby state in which she drinks in my maternal love for her.  She needs desperately to do this.  So does Anura, who hangs on me or hugs me or Bimila, like an infant.  These children have not only been starved of essential nutrition, they have been starved of essential love, the acceptance, the nurturing, the contact between skin and skin, and eye and eye, that well-loved babies receive from their mothers and fathers.

Thank goodness for Bipin, who looks after them with love because he has been well loved by his mother.  He clearly identifies with their plight.  His own father disappeared when his mother was pregnant with him.  He speaks excellent English, for his age—also 10—and translates for his mother. I communicate with her through him.

Tonight we handed out some of the presents we had bought the children.  Maria gave them a skipping rope, and I had brought a soccer ball.  Bipin said that it needed air, and told me where I could get it pumped up. We’ll go to the shop on the way to school tomorrow morning.

I was wondering if some of my readers, especially my family and friends, would consider sending play clothes and toys to the children.  They have very little to wear after school and, as I mentioned before, nothing to play with other than one another.  If you have any decent hand-me-downs, especially dresses, jeans, tee-shirts, shoes, socks, and jackets, and could send them to me here in Kathmandu, you would be doing a great good.  And toys—there don’t seem to be any nice, sturdy ones to buy here.  Today I brought small rubber balls and stickers, which were a huge hit, but not very educational or comforting.  Maria and I asked the children what they wanted.  All the girls said dolls, dolls with black hair.  The dolls for sale here are cheap, tawdry, and white.  They all have blond hair and blue eyes.  The boys wanted cars.  Bipin specified that he wanted an electric car with a battery.

Monsoon Season in Nepal

The monsoons have started.  All the trash-filled fields have turned overnight into swamps or lakes.  Some kind of bullfrog sounds like sawing wood or braying is under my window.  It and the frogs seem to have fallen from the skies.  They weren’t here before, were they?

When Brendan and I live in the same house, I am much happier.   The keening ache  that has become so habitual, I don’t even notice it, stills at last.   I become aware of it only when he comes back into my everyday life.  Like the summer rain and the sun that returns, he nourishes.

You don’t live apart from your only child from the time he is six and not suffer serious damage.  Not if you have a heart, I think.

Many sources of love

Street in Kathmandu

June 13, 2011

9:30am

Just back from the orphanage. There are currently four orphans there, Anura, who is 10, Gorima, 8, Khrisala, also 8, and Nirmala, 5. Two more are coming. We played a lot of games because they wiggle and squirm a lot and it is hard for 5 and 8-year olds to focus their attention on one thing for more than a few minutes. Unbelievably, children as young as five years are forced to sit very still for long periods of time in school. Nepali educational philosophy, as far as I can tell from the other volunteers working here and my teacher, Bishal, holds that children should be rigidly disciplined and made to memorize great reams of material. They are very good at listening and rote learning but not at creating or innovating.

I taught them Ring-around-the Rosy today, and we all laughed a lot when we hit the floor on “down.” This is how I am teaching them “down” and “up” and “around.” When they begin to get too excited, I have them breathe “in” and “out.” Poor little Nirmala was completely unfocused by the end, and I really can’t imagine how the children sit at attention for hours on end in the schools. They all waved goodbye to me very affectionately, and I was glad that I could tell them that I would be here for a long time. Working with loving and beautiful children, children who would otherwise almost certainly end up trafficked and enslaved as prostitutes, fills me with light and happiness.

One of the things I meant to mention in earlier posts is how wonderful it is to be here with Brendan, who is very good company. He still gets mad at me occasionally for treating him like a child (in his opinion), and I am trying hard not to “matronize” him. I take great comfort in his presence here. He loves me, and is unlikely to announce, out the blue, that he is finished with me and will be looking elsewhere for a more suitable mother. This alone is quite reassuring in light of recent events.

He started working at a different orphanage today. He and the two German girls, Sarah and Eileen, will be painting it in bright colors over the next month. He has already met the children, and on that day he came back from them as radiant as I felt this morning. Now I must return to my Nepali studies. The second book of the Dhammapada begins

Diligence is the path to the deathless

Negligence is the path of death.

Those who are negligent Are as the dead.

Understanding this distinctly,

Those who are skilled in diligence

Rejoice in diligence,

Delighting in the pasture of the noble one.

I could easily spend four or more hours a day studying the language, but in fact have only one or two hours to devote to it. I am getting better at asking for things in shops, and the children are also teaching me. They find my Nepali accent utterly abominable. There is much work for me to do here, and if I work diligently, I believe my heart will grow lighter. What I am trying to express is, there are more than one kind of love, and I look forward to a period of sensuous but not sexual connections with other people.

The Author on her Book

I have just thrown away an entire dumpster full of notes and essays related to the book that I’ve been working on for more than 10 years and that I am having some trouble giving up. I have carted these papers around -from Arlington, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, DC, and then to Los Angeles and London. Many papers came back with me from the British Library, where I spent eight hours a day for three months going quietly mad.  These flew home with me to Pittsburgh and some came out to Santa Barbara the summer after my father died and I had to clean up the estate while crawling out of darkness.  I tossed whole chapters, whole years, into the bin.

I feel somewhat as though I’ve just had a miscarriage, or as though I’ve just forced myself to accept that the fetus was dead and I no longer even wanted the child.  I’ve been carrying it, mostly formed, around inside of me for so long, and I’m finally coming to terms with the truth that it has stunted my intellectual, professional, and emotional growth.   It has been a permanent dis-ease, a burden I could not put down, an illness I could not give up.

I put everything else aside–my painting, my political activism, my genealogy hobby, my cooking, my gardening, my social life, my health–in order to “focus on the book.”  For  years after I stopped believing that anyone would ever read it, I’d say to myself: I will do that when the book is done.   But it was never finished!  I didn’t particularly burn to write it, either.  I’m not sure I ever did, but maybe I have forgotten.   It was simply what I had to do, the hoop I had to jump through, in order to get to the next level in my profession.

No book no tenure no job no income no respect no self-esteem no identity no self no thing.

Or so the chain of associations seemed to go.  My entire self-image became fixated, frozen, limited, fetishized, like a shrunken head. It hung leadenly around my neck and bent my back.  I should be rejoicing, not grieving, for I am like Christian at the gate to the Delectable Mountains.

Writing a book and getting tenure are both very fine goals, especially if one is writing a book that one passionately wants to publish, and if one feels well-supported and nourished, in all possible ways, at the tenure-granting institution.  In my experience most people write books because they must, not because they have an important message to share, and spend most of their lives in a state of self-aggrandizement and anxious paranoia.

Still, I am melancholy.  My book was my art for many years, and I am very fond of it.  I think lots of it is very, very good, and innovative, and interesting, and I do burn to share it.  But I do not know quite how, just yet.  I haven’t thrown out all the notes–I’m far too much of a packrat and a historian and a collector to do that.  Perhaps I’ll share it with you here, in pieces, as poems.  Or I’ll publish it privately.  Or send it down a well, or create a massive collage and hang it in my living room.  Or have it compressed and made into a bench.  Or shred it with cheese and make omelets.  Or beads.  Or stepping stones to the next destination.



Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43

Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January.  So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice.  What is different?  Sivasana.

Yes!  Already!  It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat.  Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.

I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years.  It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort.  Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting.  Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture.  For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve.  It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable.  The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true.  It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.

What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up.  This is the usual response of my spine to the pose.  Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain.  What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create.  I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain.  That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it.  Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.

It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting.  Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up.  So my resting period ends up being quite short.  But it is getting longer.  That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.

Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana.  Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief.  But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief.  Where was the pain?  The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared.   I shifted position on the floor, looking for it.  It had to be there.  It has always been there.  But it wasn’t.

So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson?  Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world.  Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.

During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity.  I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it.  I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness.   What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.

The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond  the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be.  There was no pretending this devastation away.  In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt.  The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became.  So I had to learn to give in.

When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.”  Of course I would weep.  Usually I would cry myself to sleep.  I did this for weeks, for months, for years.  But it was the only way to make it bearable.  Only by  focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way,  could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity.  I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.

The key is learning not to respond.  The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it.  I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.

A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and  beyond it.